Turning Input into Intake: Helping Students Speak.

We give students a lot; are we sure they take it all in?

We had a great teacher at university who helped us activate our vocabulary and speak in our lessons on a large variety of topics. Later I realized that she had one very simple and effective technique which I used regularly with my own students. She would sort of step aside once we all started speaking, and allowed us any deviations from the theme if she saw that we all took part in a discussion. For instance she would suggest that we talk about our future professions, with one stipulation: we did not have to stick to our chosen field of study but rather we could fantasize, imagine ourselves as anything and anybody. What skills does one need to be a sanitation engineer, and what sort of occupation is that? How does one become a tree surgeon? Would someone prefer to be Santa’s elf? One girl in my group always chose a Hollywood star as her dream job. This was allowed too, as long as she could offer a few valid arguments for the choice, and reply coherently to our many objections. I asked the professor once what her own attitude to our long talks was, and she smiled: “Say what you wish, invent, pretend, make believe, as long as you do it in English!”

Most of our job seems to be what may be called “input”. We follow the national curriculum, stick to our lesson plans. We “give” a topic, go through a unit, and conduct a test at the end of each section. The students dutifully regurgitate the vocabulary, the grammar, and the themes as per requirements. How can we turn all this into “intake”, how can we ensure that indeed everything or at least the most part of what we give is really taken, absorbed and used consciously in the future? Is it possible to include absolutely every student in the process? The answer is yes.

Before we begin any conversation, any discussion on the topic, or arrange a round table to exchange ideas, to role play, we already have a mental picture of our class. This student is always ready to talk, sometimes to the exclusion of others; it does not mean that they are the best, no, they are just very sociable. We can always rely on them to start and to fill in the pauses, but we also need to monitor them tactfully and maybe occasionally stop their flow of speech. That student may be very silent, either due to shyness or to their being slower than the others. We need to encourage their every utterance, maybe help them finish a sentence, and watch it so that their tendency to pause does not hinder the general discussion. When we first introduce conversational lessons into our schedule, we may suggest a few themes, write down a list of useful phrases, and launch a discussion ourselves. If students keep silent, we should ask their opinions individually and help them build up full sentences if needed. For next time, it helps if we arrange the roles in advance so that every person knows what they are expected to do and can prepare a few sentences to begin with. To ensure that every student in the class feels able to participate, sometimes it is enough just to tell them that. Let your class know that during this type of lesson absolutely every one of them is to say something. “I don’t know much about this topic!” or “This is a stupid topic!” may come out suddenly; some teenagers may protest against anything and everything because it’s boring or because they really cannot imagine themselves discussing the theme. I disarmed many a quarrelsome adolescent with this simple reaction: “OK, you can call this topic boring or stupid, as long as you say it in English; now please explain to us why you think it’s boring”.

A spontaneous, let alone harmonious discussion in EL is a rare occurrence, but they do happen. Whenever you notice that your class becomes involved and does not even need your active participation, let them be; just do not forget to take notes of their mistakes, and do not interrupt. More often it is necessary to work out the procedures, to distribute the roles and to keep a vocabulary list at hand. A good discussion topic is anything that is close to your students’ interests. It may be a news item, an unusual event, a music group and/or young adults’ problems. It may also be the lesson itself. Rather than trying to persuade them that this or that topic is a must, that it is fascinating while you know they do not like it, suggest that they take on various roles, including that of the teacher, or the head of a family, or discussion leader. This ensures that someone will at least start the conversation flowing. Arrange the desks or tables as close to a round table as possible; this simple measure does wonders for a good conversation lesson. If your students feel confident about this type of exercise you may sit in a corner and take your notes in relative peace. Any lesson needs our monitoring. Even if a student is a good leader, we are the teachers; we are responsible for everything that is going on. We should remain vigilant and monitor the proceedings carefully so that there is no abuse, no humiliation; unfortunately these things happen. We should know how to stop it at once. Most often a conversation goes well because it gives the students a feeling of achievement, they realize that they can speak English fluently even without the customary aids like a textbook or a set of pictures. To wrap up a speaking task, especially one which lasts the whole period, be sure to thank everyone and to praise their efforts.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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